The Normal Heart, 30 Years Later

In May, President Obama became the first U.S. president to publicly endorse gay marriage. Two weeks ago, a whole line-up of Democrats spoke up for marriage equality on stage at their national convention.

Amplified and well-lit and standing center stage at the Convention, Obama, Michelle and Biden affirmed their party's support for gay rights.

Last Wednesday, the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart opened at A.C.T. and underscored the world of difference between 2012 and 1982.

The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's agit-prop saga shouts at the outpouring of silence that met the mushrooming AIDS epidemic in 1982.

In one scene, AIDS activists struggle to get government to address the AIDS epidemic. When The Gay Men's Health Crisis (a newly formed organization consisting of four bickering guys) finally meets with City Hall, their long-awaited meeting takes place -- literally -- in the basement.

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The cast of The Normal Heart; Photo by Kevin Berne.

There in the basement of City Hall, a closeted assistant to Mayor Ed (closeted) Koch finally agrees to quietly meet the group led by the angry, abrasive Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen as the Larry Kramer character) and Bruce Niles, "the reasonable one." (Nick Mennell plays the hunky and hesitant closet case.)

That year, there were 41 deaths from AIDS. When the play opened on Broadway last year, where it won a Tony for Best Revival, the tally of AIDS deaths was up to approximately 30 million.


Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen, left) and his lover Felix Turner (Matt McGrath) in The Normal Heart; Photo by Kevin Berne.

Larry Kramer was right. And lots of the time belligerent, obnoxious, and relentless yelling and screaming is necessary to wake us up. But does it make for stunning theater? I'm not sure about that.

The Normal Heart has been restaged by the brilliant George C. Wolfe and stars the marvelous Patrick Breen as a charismatic pain in the ass. But, theatrically speaking, it's mostly yelling monologues and single-note outrage. Still, with AIDS itself as the play's heart-breaking leading man, how could The Normal Heart not win three Tony Awards? It's the "Whoops, we royally F--ed up, but here's this" -- award. A Lifetime Achievement Award.


Mickey Marcus (Michael Berresse, left) accompanies his friend Craig Donner (Tom Berklund) to his doctor’s appointment in The Normal Heart; Photo by Scott Suchman.

As Kate Winslet said, (playing a farcical version of herself) "you do a film about the Holocaust, guaranteed an Oscar."

Yes there are scenes of real good drama. When Ned pleads with his brother (Bruce Altman) to say that he is normal and Ben cannot say it. This is an emotionally specific scene, which comes with family history and complex feelings. But most of the other characters are little more than their casting call descriptions: "handsome and scared," "Southern and sassy."


Dr. Emma Brookner (Jordan Baker) is one of the first physicians to speak out about the mysterious disease plaguing New York's gay community in The Normal Heart; Photo by Kevin Berne.

I admire the strength and courage of Dr. Emma Brookner, a character based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, one of the first doctors to treat AIDS patients. Helpless to stop these men from dying, Emma is mad as hell on wheels. She contracted polio just months before the vaccine was discovered and she is in a wheelchair. But Emma, played by Jordan Baker (in the role that Ellen Barkin won a Tony for) is simply the Righteous Disabled Doctor. She raises her voice in frustration and keeps it up there almost all of the play.

It is quite possible that the play works better now, as historical drama, rather than as autobiographical agitprop. (Agitprop theater is really, really hard to pull off unless you have Kurt Weill writing the songs.)

Larry Kramer was inspired to write The Normal Heart after a visit to Dachau, where he learned that Jews were being exterminated as early as 1933, back when Germans could have spoken out. Germany didn't stop it, America ignored it. No one "Acted Up" or "Fought Back." As the play starts, Ned Weeks points out that the first time The New York Times reported on Hitler's Final Solution, the article appeared on page 28. (Much has been written since about the Jewish-owned paper's concern of public perception.)

Ned Weeks rages against The Times for ignoring the mounting deaths of gay men in New York. He points out that that year, The New York Times featured daily cover stories about the seven deaths in Chicago that resulted from Tylenol bottles that had been tampered with.

Weeks lobbies reporters at The Times (many who were gay and reluctant to report on the gay disease). He confronts the Mayor's office (gay, closeted, reluctant). And, what with Reagan in the White House, it becomes clear that this is a perfect storm of political asphyxiation.

This revival of The Normal Heart arrives some thirty years after the action occurs. We watch Ned Weeks denounce the silence = death Holocaust coverage just thirty years before him. The symmetry is poetic. But as Larry Kramer tells us in a letter tucked into the program, it's not like we've learned from the past. And it's not over yet.

The Normal Heart runs through October 7, 2012 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.

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